Letter from Mong Kok

I’ve been avoiding writing about the Umbrella Movement since it began. A lot of life circumstances meant that I’ve already put too much time sharing updates and thoughts on Twitter. I haven’t been out every day, but I’ve visited Admiralty several times (including the night of the tear gassing), visited Causeway Bay once at its peak, and have been passing through Mong Kok regularly for the past two weeks, as I now live nearby. I talk to my students about it frequently. I come as half-supported, half-spectator. I’ve taken lots of photos (all free for use under a Creative Commons license). I get a certain pass as a social scientists to be a bit of a ‘tourist.’ I come, observe, talk to people, and try to get a general sense of the dynamics to offer better analysis.

To put some systems thinking into this, Mong Kok seemed the most resilient of the two major sites. The Mong Kok Occupation was a street market where Admiralty Occupation was a supermarket. Admiralty had metal barricades, left by police, tied together at every intersection. There was a nerve center of a built platform in front of LegCo with a sound and video system. Supporters ‘owned’ the roads and pedestrian overpasss crossing Connaught. Mong Kok, in contrast, had ad-hoc barricades. Instead of a raised platform, there was a cheap canvas tent where people could take two minutes for a speech on a megaphone. 

Admiralty is a non-residential neighborhood along the water that can actually be contained. Most of the Occupiers were traveling some distance to get there. While not easy, it is plausible police could stop new entrants, take down barricades, and overwhelm Admiralty by mostly non-violent force with sufficient numbers.  In this sense, Admiralty is more susceptible to collapse into a new state were police able to organize effective action against it.

In contrast, Mong Kok was far more fluid, dynamic, and adaptive. The Occupiers were more local. It might have required less effort to clear, but also less energy to return to its former state. A site held together with duct tape can be quickly rebuilt with duct tape so long as the crowds keep returning. A street market can reopen a day or two after a typhoon, where a supermarket might take weeks. Mong Kok would have been the last site I tried to clear if I were the police.

Photos from Mong Kong before Friday night

Photos from Admiralty before Friday night



Organization and Leadership

Any analysis of leadership of the Umbrella Movement must start with the fact that it is functionally leaderless and has been since the beginning of the Class Boycott. As an example of how I think decisions take place, there was a large build-up of students on Friday night in the streets along LegCo. I asked a group of them what they were there for and if anything had been planned. They said there was no plan, but that they had gone to CY’s residence the night before. They said they show up, listen to ideas, and join the ones they like and agree with. Two hours later students had jumped over fences into Civic Square, with Joshua Wong and ‘Longhair’ taking the lead. 

Admiralty was and is largely comprised of three groups: Scholarism, the Hong Kong Federation of Students (HKFS), and Occupy Central with Peace and Love (OCPL). A note on the latter: despite this being an Occupation, OCPL is amongst the least influential groups on the ground. I think Benny Tai built a template for action that students seized when things began escalating. In my analysis, Scholarism is the most ‘legitimate’ amongst them because of Joshua Wong’s clear leadership. One college student told me they would pack up and go home if he recommended it, as he was their ‘spiritual leader’. My take is that Scholarism represents both high school students and those who had their introduction to activism with Scholarisms anti-National Education campaign, which would include first and second year college students.

HKFS is who the government negotiates with, or at least whom they say they will negotiate about negotiating with. It is an umbrella group connecting independent student unions at the universities around the city. Within this mix, different student unions carry different amounts of influence. The Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) is over-represented where students from my school, the Hong Kong Institute of Education (HKIEd), seem to have a weaker student union do to university politics.

I consider HKFS less ‘radical’ than Scholarism, as the tone and type of protests changed considerably when Scholarism joined. Scholarism arrived the night that the Class Boycott officially ended. There were very few cries to escalate to Occupy Central during the duration of the Class Boycott. HKFS escalations during the class boycott included a few marches through Central and walking to CY Leung’s government residence with a giant picture of him as a vampire. The night Scholarism arrived, students climbed fences to Occupy Civic Square.

Joshua Wong is, in many ways, a yang to Xi Jingling’s yin. They both share an instinct for holding firm to a certain principle, to staring an opponent down, and to creating points of conflict. Scholarism’s ‘radicalism’ is that they are willing to escalate. This strategy has worked for them thus far. What they produce is a dynamic where a small vanguard takes a decisive action an a much larger group is willing and able to step up and protect them. More than anything, I think Wong understands that much of the point of nonviolent resistance is to make ones opponent show their ugliest face. In that, he has succeeded far beyond my expectations. 

The relatively tame HKFS Class Boycott

Scholarism arrives at the official end of the Class Boycott

Six hours after Scholarism arrives.

The very condensed version of the history of those two days was that police came after those students with batons out and up to a thousand students outside LegCo began acts of civil disobedience to protect them. It took police roughly ten hours to get to the Civic Square Occupiers. The arrested Joshua Wong, thousands flooded to Connaught Road outside of LegCo to protest, police tear gassed, thousands more came, then police tear gassed, and then the Umbrella Revolution as we know it was born.

HKFS has tried to exert leadership in Mong Kok but were shunned by people on the ground. I have been through Mong Kok several times over the past three weeks. Before the triad attacks, I saw neither counter-protesters nor anti-Occupy signs. Business was as bustling as usual when I had my phone fixed in the infamous Sen Tak Plaza. While traffic had been impaired, the MTR lines were open and I doubt more than a handful of people had to close shops or add more than twenty minutes to any trip.

The Government Response

Police strategy and action has been amongst the most unpredictable elements of the Umbrella Movement. By and large, protesters have been extraordinarily consistent and so predictable. In my analysis, the core issue is legitimacy: to seriously engage with the protesters as a political force is to grant them legitimacy. The talks that have been announced, canceled, and re-announced were never serious. The core issue for protesters is pluralistic nomination and the government has made clear that this is off the table. Even low-hanging, relatively useless, fruit like CY Leung’s resignation is off the table.

The SAR government, then, has only three cards to play: ignore, mock, and attack. They have been moving chaotically between these responses. From Friday to Sunday night during after Joshua Wong’s arrest, police were in the attack mode. What made the issue curious and complex is that they never seemed to have a strategy or appropriate manpower to follow out their orders. On Friday night, I watched wave after wave of police trying to push their way through students. Each wave failed and retreated. Throughout that weekend police would find themselves cornered and surrounded by protesters by making aggressive advances that they couldn’t defend. During the tear gassing Sunday night, police would come out in front of thousands with about ten men, protesters would come up, they would gas, then flee. Not an inch of territory was gained with approximately 80 canisters fired.

The general model of police violence that I saw was that it would come out whenever they tried to follow an order that they were unable to execute. They would form lines that couldn’t be held. They would get themselves surrounded and cornered. Like any cornered animal, their response was show their fangs and claws. Police would gas, shove, and pepper spray out of weakness, not strength. They would do these things when they saw no other option out of bad strategic moves.

Beginning Monday Morning the police response was to ignore. They essentially vanished. They weren’t just standing back, they didn’t want to be seen. In my analysis, this is not what protesters wanted. Their dubious absence during the triad attacks in Mong Kok are evidence to this. Good policing would have meant having appropriate numbers around, responded at appropriate times, and in ways that de-escalated tensions.

Were they to have come peacefully and work on rebuilding trust, I wouldn’t doubt that students might have let them do periodic patrols through the Occupation sites. Trust has been broken again and again for reasons too many to list here . As an example last night in Mong Kok, a local woman was screaming at police that they had said they wanted to let a fire truck through and had gained protester consent to open Argyle Road. That then became the pretext for them trying to come in and form two lines along Argyle Road, trying to push people to the sidewalks.

Police were beginning to adopt diverse tactics against the Occupation at the beginning of this week. Numbers have fluctuated throughout the Movement such that weekends are larger than weekdays, and nights are much larger than mornings and afternoons. Police began a tactic of coming in early, when numbers were thin, and using sufficient numbers and equipment to remove barricades that were essentially unmanned. They were slowly, and smartly, chipping away at the size of the Occupation in a way designed to to minimize conflict. They were explicit that they weren’t doing a clearance, for instance. They came with sufficient numbers and resources to the job quickly.

And, as has happened every other time, they dropped the ball and they handed all the momentum back to the protesters.

Mong Kok: Friday

The police tried these tactics, with some success, Friday morning in Mong Kok. The Occupation was nested in the middle of the very busy Argyle and Nathan Road intersection. With only minimal violence, police moved to clear Argyle Street and one lane of Nathan Road in the morning. Occupiers were allowed to stay on a single lane of Nathan Road. This was an interesting move and one that might have been successful if handled carefully. Occupiers wanted to Occupy, police wanted to minimize disturbances. Keeping Argyle Road open, then, should have been a primary objective.

Police should have been prepared for large numbers to return at night, as they always do. If the point was minimizing traffic disrupting, a smart strategy would have been to peacefully lead new numbers into Nathan Road while allowing them to expand the Occupation southward. Whether or not protesters would have let themselves be corralled like this is an open question, but it was probably the best of all available containment strategies.

The alternate was far worse scenario for them. Mong Kok is by some estimates the densest neighborhood in the world. The local nature of the protest meant people could come from all directions. By not shepherding people into an expanded Nathan Occupation, new arrivals would show up – as I did – on Argyle Road and the north side of Nathan Road. This would have produced five lines that police would need to maintain. By about 8pm, the two lines they were trying to maintain were already heavily under strain. To put the issue very plainly: there would have been no police violence had they simply carried on in Mong Kok as they had over the past two weeks.

Likely because they were following orders from afar, police chose a stranger and far more difficult strategy: they would multiply the number of lines they need to defend by trying to keep traffic open on Argyle. Rather than simply trying to stop people from coming into the intersection, they would try to keep them on the sidewalks of Argyle and Nathan. If what I saw on the western side of Argyle was happening elsewhere, then they were trying to maintain ELEVEN lines: three on Argyle east, three on Nathan north, three on Argyle west, and two on Nathan south. This is in addition to the lines they were trying to hold in Admiralty, especially at Lung Wo Road. These were lines that required constant shifting, as they would need to move two lines at a time to letter traffic through. 

I arrived at about 10 p.m. from into Argyle west. From a pedestrian overpass at a distance, Argyle looked Occupied. It was a temporary Occupation, though, as protesters were being moved to allow traffic. I’m not sure of the timing, but what I think I saw was the ‘fire truck incident.’ Protesters had closed Argyle Road and voluntarily moved to allow vehicles to pass, but no fire truck came.

I arrived to a scene very different than I had seen elsewhere. People were angry. People we shouting. Police looked scared and overwhelmed. It was, for the second time, an Occupation out of control. It was the first one I experienced. While admitting a bias towards Occupiers, the agents of chaos here were the police. They were trying to do something that was almost impossible to do and seemed unsustainable: keep traffic flowing on Argyle despite thousands of people being on the street.

When I arrived, people were on the street but cars were still passing. Police decided that this wasn’t enough: people needed to be on sidewalks. The situation very quickly and chaotically escalated. I found myself suddenly at a wall of police. I tried talking to some, saying “this is bad. This is dangerous. Please tell your commanding officers. You feel this too. You see this too.” We were all being shoved together, shouting was echoing around the dense low-rise  buildings along Argyle.

And then they shoved. They began pushing people, and people were trying not to budge. There was a very high risk of stampede. It was a situation the police created all themselves. I was, at this point, shaking. When they couldn’t shove anymore, they began dousing people at the front with pepper spray. I had gotten away just a few seconds before. From where I stood, this was a punishment for not fleeing (i.e., causing stampede-like conditions), not for pushing forward.

Woman being treated for pepper spray

As I left, a strange came game took shape. People, for the most part, stood in sidewalks when the pedestrian signals were red. As soon as they would turn green people would move back into the streets. Some would stop to tie their shoes. Many would throw coins and pretend to look for them in the street. Police, trying to follow the rules of their own game, would sit back and let them do it. When the lights would switch to red, a handful of people would try to start a sit-in. Every time, they would disperse when police showed back up as a mob.

Which leads to one of the most important observations of the night: people are finally afraid of police. During the night of the first tear gassing, people were openly mocking police. They would fire tear gas, people would disperse for about a minute, and when the clouds cleared they would move forward – unafraid, defiant, proud. They would drag metal barriers with them. When the first sit-ins happened outside of LegCo, it was police rather than students that budged. By Friday night, police had successfully transformed themselves into the thugs Beijing wanted them to be.

Police estimated that 9,000 people were Occupying Mong Kok at 2:30am. That is something like ten times the number that were there the night before. There are three dynamics that I think are in play. The first is a cultural trait to move towards a disturbance – be it an argument, a fight, or a police action – for entertainment value. The second is that the police then treat nearly everyone on the roads as an Occupier. I was gassed on the first Sunday just trying to get close enough to get pictures. This is an excellent way to build support for Occupy through sheer force of ineptitude.  

Finally, and more importantly, there is a ‘safety in numbers’ mentality that has been at play since the beginning of all of this. On the first Friday night, when I was hearing that they were coming for the Civic Square Occupiers with batons, I found myself instinctively running up to stop a police van, hands in the air, with students to stop their planned assault. Wit large, Mong Kok had one its largest turnouts after the triad attacks.  There are a lot of people who are willing to put themselves in between attackers and the attacked. The more of us that show up, the more likely it has been the case that police back down.

This, to me, is the primary dynamic fueling Occupy. A small group of protesters can stay at sites while a much larger group waits in the wings to show up should violence begin anew. This is why the early morning non-violent police strategies succeeded while last night failed so badly. Police didn’t just not clear Mong Kok – they made it larger than it had ever been. I don’t see this dynamic changing anytime soon. The only way police can win the streets back is with a sound strategy, professionalism, respect, and nonviolence. They’ve not proven themselves able to display that for more than an hour or two at a time.

What I saw last night was terrible policing. In an ‘era of civil disobedience’, police need to focus on order more than law. By focusing exclusively on law, they were laying all of the groundwork for a stampede or riot. They were, again and again, trying to control more than they could. They would use violence when their control failed. Again and again, they would make an angry crowd angrier. Again and again, they became a source for chaos and made me feel, for the first time, frightened to be in Hong Kong.

Multiple people being treated for pepper spray